Tim Farron resigned as leader of the UK Liberal Democratic party in 2017. He said he was “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader” and later said “I put Christ ahead of my career.” He also said he had been the “subject of suspicion” because of his own beliefs. On the one hand, this is a very sad comment on modern politics. On the other, Tim is to be congratulated on his choice.
In 2019 he gave an interview in which he said: “I’m somebody who believes in a secular society; I’m very much strongly opposed to a clerical state – I even think the Church of England should be disestablished. But just as I oppose Christianity being the State faith, I also 100 per cent oppose atheism as the State faith, and that appears to be where we’ve got to in reality. A real liberal society is one where different worldviews hold together in the same space. Not one dominant one telling all the other ones they’ve got to genuflect towards them.”
He is right in saying that British society is becoming increasingly secular and de facto atheist in the sense that some politicians are real atheists and others feel their faith is a personal and private matter, not something that should govern their political opinions and decisions. He is also right that different opinions and different religious views should be tolerated.
But his statement ignores a very important factor – the influence of Christianity in the establishment of the rule of law, democracy and human rights.
Tom Holland – “I was wrong about Christianity”
Tom Holland is a very accomplished and respected historian. He was brought up in a Christian family but turned away from the faith. He came to believe that Christianity brought about “an age of superstition and credulity.” He accepted the popular view that Christianity held back culture until the Enlightenment. He was fascinated with the ancient Romans and Greeks.
However, after much study, although still an agnostic, he came to realise that it was Christianity that shaped much of what we value in Western society in terms of human rights, culture, and rule of law. He eventually wrote an article in the New Statesman in 2016 entitled “Why I was wrong about Christianity.” In it he said “It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.
In a later article “Why even atheists think like Christians,” written in 2019, he said “For a millennium now, to live in Britain has been to live in a society saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions. Prime ministers today – even the devoutest – may shrink from publicly “doing God”; but across the political spectrum, the motivation of politicians and voters alike remains impossible to understand without also recognising the enduring influence on this country of Christianity.”
Atheists agree with Holland
In 2006 Jurgen Habermas, an atheist philosopher wrote “For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”[i]
In 2001 atheist philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote “The concept of crime against humanity is a Christian concept and I think there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage, the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage.”[ii]
John Gray is an atheist political philosopher with interests in analytic philosophy and the history of ideas. He reviewed Tom Holland’s book Dominion.[iii] He wrote about “the equal intrinsic worth of all human beings or the inherent preciousness of individual persons” and commented “These values – which secular thinkers nowadays take for granted – were placed at the heart of the Western world by Christianity. He added “Secular liberals will immediately point out that slavery was practised throughout Christendom during much of its history. Of course this is so, but the fact does not alter Holland’s central point. Even if Christianity in power sanctioned all manner of evils, it set a standard of goodness that simply did not exist in the pagan world.”
Later he writes “Holland seems to be suggesting that liberal values cannot survive the collapse of their Christian foundations … It may well be that liberal values as they were understood in the past are on the way out … If they read Dominion, as they certainly should, secular liberals might pause to reflect that they acquired their deepest values by chance from a religion they despise.”
Other supportive comments
Prof Howard Tumber says, “human rights is not a universal doctrine, but is the descendent of one particular religion (Christianity).”[iv]
Prof Brian Z. Tamanaha of Washington University points out that it was Christianity which established the rule of law, declaring all human beings to be equal in the sight of God. He wrote “The absolutist monarch inherited from Roman law was thereby counteracted and transformed into a monarch explicitly under law.”[v]
The church, particularly Archbishop Stephen Langton, was very influential in the production of the English Magna Carta in 1215. It stated, for the first time that the monarch was subject to law and that citizens had legal rights. There was a strong Protestant influence in the establishment of the English Bill of Rights in 1689. It limited the powers of the monarch and set out the rights of Parliament and established the freedom to petition the monarch, the freedom from cruel and unusual punishments, the freedom from being fined without trial, etc. It also inspired the US Bill of Rights which was ratified in 1791.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States wrote “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
The dangers of secularisation
Dr Augusto Zimmermann, an internationally known legal scholar, wrote an article in 2005 entitled “The Christian foundations of the rule of law in the West: a legacy of liberty and resistance against tyranny.” In it he warned about the dangers of secularisation.[vi] He wrote “The Bible has been historically recognized as the most important book for the development of both the rule of law and democratic institutions in the Western world. However, we have seen over these last decades a deep erosion of individual rights, with the growth of state power over the life and liberty of individuals. If the future we want for ourselves and our future generations is one of freedom under law, not absolute subjection to the arbitrary will of human authorities, we will have to restore the biblical foundations for the rule of law in the Western world. As such, the rule of law talks about the protection of the individual by God-given liberties, rather than by an all-powerful, law-giving government endowed by god-like powers over the civil society.”
However in the 19th century, secularists concluded that Darwin’s theory of evolution removed the idea of God and so they replaced the law of God with the supremacy of the state. The state became the new absolute, in their opinion.
David Alton, Lord Alton of Liverpool, was the Liberal Party’s spokesman on Home Affairs. He was appointed as Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University in 1997. In 2017 he wrote an article entitled “Western democracy needs Christian values.” In it he said “
“Democracy needs more than votes to sustain it. Without the solder of commonly held values welding together its constituent parts, democracies can easily disintegrate into competing interest groups and warring factions … We have seen crucifixes removed from classrooms; Christian midwives lose their jobs because they refuse to abort a child; universities deny free speech to Christian speakers; political leaders forced from office because they are told their beliefs are incompatible with ascendant angry atheism – like a secular illiberal mirror image of Sharia law … A democracy that simply depends on who gets the most votes leaves itself open to populism, opportunism, xenophobia, fake news and manipulation – especially in the era of social (or rather antisocial) media and the Twittersphere.
An inherent weakness of majoritarianism is that with the adept ability to affect election results through manipulation, fake news, scaremongering, appeals to greed, self-interest and the lowest common denominator, the interests of society as a whole can easily suffer.
But as we have disassociated religion and liberty, democracy and faith, we have unstitched the fabric that holds a society together and endangered its future. Too many of our Western elites preen themselves like peacocks while they reject and ridicule the values that offer the best defence against self-serving populism.”[vii]
The dangers of populism
There are different forms of populism and it can have different effects. But it is based on two principles:
- A country’s ‘true people’ are locked into conflict with outsiders, including establishment elites.
- Nothing should constrain the will of the true people.
Is populism the much-needed antidote to secularism? On the face of it, this may seem to be the case with a lot of populism. It can seem to be, to some extent, a religious backlash. Some of the populist leaders claim a link to religion and a reaction against secularisation. Donald Trump is a case in point. He maintains huge support from American Evangelicals. They support his opposition to a liberal attitude to abortion and his fairly radical support of Israel. His statements are sometimes Christian but much of his behaviour isn’t.
Vladimir Putin seeks partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church. Viktor Orban in Hungary claims to be Christian Democrat. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has support from Pentecostals and other Evangelicals. Matteo Salvini, who is aiming to be prime minister of Italy, used Catholic symbols in an election campaign and claimed the Virgin Mary was willing him to victory. Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland refer to “Judeo-Christianity” as the pillar of western European civilisation.
However, are populist leaders really committed to the Christian faith or are they using it to gain support from Christians because they want to take over from the secularists?
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University, wrote an article in 2019 entitled “The populist right is forging an unholy alliance with religion.”[viii] The article stated “we fail to see the global theological counter-revolution taking place right before our eyes. This dimension of our political moment might go a long way to explain why rightwing populists have scored so many victories in recent years: populists have proven very adept at hijacking religion.”
Olivier Roy is a Political Scientist and Professor at the European University Institute in Florence. In 2018 he wrote an article entitled ‘A kitsch Christianity’ [kitsch means poor quality]. He sees populism as a vehicle which appropriates Christian symbols for political ends while discarding the religion’s core values. Roy states “When the populists refer to Christianity it is as an identity, with the explicit goal of excluding Islam from Europe. Christianity is for them a cultural factor, not a value system … Due to the Church’s lack of credibility and clarity, Christianity has been taken hostage by the populists and is turning into a kitsch Christianity.”
Ben Ryan is Head of Research at the Theos Think Tank. He speaks of the use of Christianity by populists as ‘Christianism’. He wrote “The challenge facing Christian groups … is to be able to differentiate themselves from those who have been using their religion for a crude political ideology.” He adds “In this new Christianism a string of populist leaders … have taken Christianity as a defining feature of national purity … this has little, if any, theological depth to it, but it is the application of Christianity to a political ideology, one that establishes the pure people against outsiders.”
The Bishop of Liverpool, in a sermon at St John’s College, Cambridge in 2018, gave a critical summary of Populism:
- The language of populism assumes that society is divided between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ (noble, innocent, hard done to and pure) and, on the other hand, ‘the elite’ (corrupt, greedy, unaccountable, ignorant of life on the ground, detached from most people’s reality) – and the elite are always ‘the others’.
- Populism feeds, and feeds off, emotion, not rational analysis.
- Populism is more about style than substance – feeling rather than policies.
- Populist leaders claim the ‘will of the people’ and quickly disregard democratic norms on the grounds that we are in crisis. Disruption is the name of the game: fearmongering, the promotion of conspiracy theories, the undermining of trust (in, for example, media and institutions).
He warned of the danger of populism, drawing a parallel with the support of German Christians for Hitler’s Reich and saying that “we have to learn to pay attention to those things in our society that need to be encouraged (kindness, generosity, justice and humaneness) and identify and challenge those that are destructive.”
Jan-Werner Müller Professor of Politics at Princeton University said that populism may claim to be based on democratic principles, but what it fosters is a kind of ‘deranged democracy’.
Dr Benjamin Moffitt, Research Fellow in Political Science at Stockholm University wrote a book in 2016 called “The Global Rise of Populism.” In it he describes the approach of populists as including “the demonstration of bad manners … a rejection of the conventions of political or even polite discourse; and the advancing of a narrative of crisis, breakdown or threat.” He adds that “populism uses media to construct political cultures.” More serious he writes about “populists flaunting their democratic tendencies at the same time as undoing democratic guarantees.”
Robert Kagan served in the US State Department and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which conducts research and education in the social sciences, particularly in foreign policy, global economy, and economic development. In 2019 he wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled “The strongmen strike back.”[ix] In it he expressed deep concern over the growth of authoritarianism in today’s world. He said that we were lulled into a false sense of security after the end of the cold war and “did not notice” that authoritarianism was regaining its power. Russia and China were obvious examples but “an authoritarian “backlash” spread globally, from Egypt to Turkey to Venezuela to Zimbabwe … curbing free expression and independent media.” He was referring to populists.
In 2018 Jordan Kyle, Senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, and Yascha Mounk, a political scientist and assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University, produced a paper called “What Populists Do to Democracies.”[x] In it they stated “According to our research, populist governments have deepened corruption, eroded individual rights, and inflicted serious damage on democratic institutions.” They added “many populists are using positions of power to weaken democratic norms and institutions that are needed to safeguard liberal democracies over the long term.”
As always, we need to see the bigger picture about what is going on in the political world. There are of course genuine Christians (and people of other faiths) in politics but the overall trend is secular. Also the Coronavirus crisis has “brought the best” out of many people, but often that doesn’t include faith. Secularism is not just a movement seeking to separate church and state, keeping religion out of public education and preventing discrimination on the basis of religion. As David Alton puts it, in dissociating “religion and liberty, democracy and faith, we have unstitched the fabric that holds a society together and endangered its future.” Secularism undermines individual rights by replacing the rule of law over everyone, including political leaders, with the growth of state power. Instead of all citizens (and leaders) being equal under God and divine law, we become subject to an increasingly secularised, more and more powerful state. And the populist reaction is no better with its divisive, emotive, xenophobic, fearmongering approach and its attacks on the media and institutions, its fake news, etc.
We need to recognise that what is happening through secularism, populism and the growth of authoritarianism is a trend towards a godless dictatorship. There have, of course, been dictators in the past but we now live in the global village and whatever the present reactions against globalism, it will not go away. We are very interdependent economically and in many other ways. We are also deeply affected by powerful electronic media and very extensive surveillance.
The New Testament makes it clear that the End Times will be marked by rebellious, godless, authoritarianism (2 Thess 2:3-4). And we need to remember that Jesus (and Paul) told us to take note of this. Looking at the effects of secularism and the behaviour of some populists, it is not difficult to believe this. None of us knows the timescale of such a prophecy but we can recognise relevant trends.
The undermining of society through secularism and populism may not be corrected by political action. What is needed is revival which can bring a fundamental restoration of the church and a widespread transformation of society which can replace godless leadership.
The New Testament prophetic view of the future is that in the medium term the devil will appear to be winning: the Antichrist, persecution etc., but in the long term the Lord will win. However in the short term, despite trends towards the medium term, we can pray for deliverance and correction of wrong trends, especially for revival, which is also a sign of the End.
[i] Jürgen Habermas, (2006) “Conversation about God and the World.” Time of transitions. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 150-151. Source: https://quotepark.com/quotes/1771824-jurgen-habermas-christianity-has-functioned-for-the-normative-self/
[ii] Jacques Derrida, “To Forgive: The Unforgivable and Imprescriptable,” in Questioning God, ed. John D. Caputo et al. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 70.
[iv] Tumber, Howard; Waisbord, Silvio, eds. (2017). The Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights. New York: Routledge. pp. 412–414.
[v] On the Rule of Law; History, Politics, Theory, Cambridge University Press 2004 p. 23